Having worked in the restaurant business since age 14, Bob Platzer remembers when South Jersey was known as a “dining mecca” due to the popularity of casinos.
He’s intent on bringing back that status.
From dishwasher to the owner of 18 restaurants, Platzer created the Haddonfield-based P.J.W. Restaurant Group in 1983.
“A buddy of mine asked what it was that I ultimately wanted to do,” he said. “He mentioned that up by his house in (Lehighton, Pennsylvania) — 100 yards off the Turnpike — a restaurant had been up for sale for two years.
“I drove up the next day and bought it for $72,000.”
It was the slow start to his empire.
Platz’s Inn would be his only bar and restaurant for 10 years — until he started to hear how well some friendly competitors were doing with burgers and wings.
That simple concept led Platzer to purchase a second location in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to create the very first P.J. Whelihan’s Pub in 1992.
The rest took care of itself.
“Every time we opened a P.J. Whelihan’s up, we were always successful,” Platzer said. “We’d acquire restaurants that weren’t doing well and turn them right around.”
Making it a family affair
Bob Platzer takes pride and care in the fact that his restaurant staff often socializes outside of work by participating in team-building events such as Tough Mudder and softball leagues together.
“Our staff is our backbone,” he said. “We are all about that personal experience.”
It’s what motivates him to do right by his employees — especially when it comes to deciding on tough issues, such as raising the minimum wage, affordable health care and doing away with tipping.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way to handle things for our employees,” Platzer said. “We’ll voice our opinion when it’s time. And we’re not trying to stop progress, but we’re also just trying not to get buried.”
Regardless, he said his staff believes P.J.W. Restaurant Group is a great company to work for.
“When people leave, they ask if their sister or brother or daughter can have their job,” Platzer said. “If you have good people, they’ll bring good people in, too.”
P.J. Whelihan’s — named after Platzer’s grandfather — now serves American pub fare at 13 locations, with five of them located in New Jersey. Known for its buffalo wings and burgers, P.J. Whelihan’s also has a presence in both the Liacouras Center at Temple University and the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, as well as a mobile food truck for parties and events.
Nearly seven years ago, the brand’s fast success gave Platzer the idea for another restaurant that would serve American pub fare, including gourmet burgers and oysters — and focus on craft beer.
“There was already a P.J. Whelihan’s (in Westmont), so we opened up The Pour House,” he said. “We developed the concept out of our opportunity in the existing market.”
Biz in brief
Company: P.J.W. Restaurant Group
Leader: Bob Platzer, CEO
Financials: A roughly $75 million company, with the goal to be a $100 million company in four years.
Employees: About 1,600 nationwide; 800 in New Jersey.
One more thing: In addition to opening new locations for P.J. Whelihan’s Pub and The Pour House, P.J.W. Restaurant Group is sure to invest in its current locations, too: “We’re in the process of constructing ‘four-season’ patios that can be used year-round,” Platzer said. Both the Washington Township and Maple Shade locations of P.J. Whelihan’s Pub currently have year-round outdoor dining available.
Having three restaurants — P.J. Whelihan’s, The Pour House and Treno Pizza Bar, a stand-alone wood-fire and brick-fire pizza concept — within less than a mile of one another on the same street has worked well for the group.
“The Pour House fits in best with our (original) brand,” Platzer said.
Not to say that the group’s fourth brand — The ChopHouse, a standalone, award-winning, upscale steakhouse on a lake in Gibbsboro — doesn’t.
“We love The ChopHouse,” Platzer said. “It has a great reputation and has been profitable every year since we opened it.”
“The Pour House” — now with three locations — “is just more of what we do.”
According to Platzer, The Pour House and P.J. Whelihan’s brands are the restaurant group’s “growth vehicles” — and the company is looking to rapidly expand.
“Some of the national chains’ biggest locations are in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware,” Platzer said. “We have a lot of customers from outside areas suggest we should open a P.J. Whelihan’s closer to them, and while we try to stay humble, we keep listening to people beat that drum.”
The ‘X’ factor
RutgersX, the first business accelerator program at Rutgers University that focuses entirely on entrepreneurs producing food products, will be held Nov. 16 in conjunction with the Accelerating Food Entrepreneurs Conference.
Lou Cooperhouse, director of the school’s Food Innovation Center, said the event is aimed at “propelling the economy by creating a pipeline of entrepreneurs and (having) funders attend — anybody who would like to provide an investment, whether it’s philanthropic, they’re angel investors or have a venture fund, or even a corporation.”
“(It’s) really about being an aggregator of the food industry.”
At the event, the accelerator’s first cohort, consisting of nine companies, will give pitch presentations to investors, food marketing experts and other industry insiders.
In addition, there is a full agenda of speakers and panelists and interactive exhibits during lunchtime.
The event will be held at the Rutgers University College Avenue Student Center located at 126 College Ave. in New Brunswick.
The RutgersX food accelerator is an extension of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, which was created in 2001. – Andrew Sheldon
To reach its goal of becoming a $100 million company by 2019, P.J.W. Restaurant Group plans to open at least one to two restaurants a year — and while it’s heavily considering additional locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania seems to be winning out.
Reason one: Philadelphia sports fans are supremely territorial. “Our advertising dollars are heavily influenced by Philadelphia-based sports,” Platzer said.
Increasing its brands’ presence in the Philadelphia area would not only continue to capitalize on the broad market, but would help it maintain its relationships with Flyers and Eagles athletes that frequent their establishments.
The second reason is much worse news for Jersey: less expensive property taxes and liquor licenses. When P.J.W. Restaurant Group was growing, Platzer actually viewed the high pricing of liquor licenses in New Jersey as an advantage.
“People wouldn’t come here,” Platzer said. “But now, there’s a bill being touted for $5,000 wine and beer licenses. If that goes through, a whole lot of people are going to be in the liquor business.
“We certainly don’t want to pay $1 million for a license only to have that happen a year later.”
New Jersey, Platzer said, is already getting crowded — but that hasn’t stopped the brand from growing before.
“Within a two-year span, we had 8,000 restaurants open up within three miles of (our Westmont locations),” Platzer said.
But even when Buffalo Wild Wings opened — a major competitor to P.J. Whelihan’s — the brand held its own.
And in 32 years, Platzer has never had to close a restaurant, a stat his employees surely appreciate.
“The best part of my job is working with young people — they can’t keep me young, but I feel younger,” Platzer said. “I love coming to work every day.”
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